The world at a watershed

I seldom pass a group of young children these days – or a mother with a newborn infant in her arms – but I ask myself  a rhetorical question. What kind of civilization will that little child grow up in or inhabit as an adult? I was not preoccupied with that question thirty years ago. I was confident then, despite the Cold War, despite the tribal troubles of my country, that changes were for the better. Our progress  at worst seemed to be a matter of two steps forward, one step backward. But the trend was forward. Is it no longer possible to have that confidence?

A friend of mine rejects any suggestion that our present discontents on the geopolitical front today are a fulfillment in any way of the late Samuel Huntington’s predictions of a clash of civilizations. It would be consoling to be able to agree with him – but it would also be naive and dangerous.

Know your enemy is one of the most basic principles of self-defence. If we fail to understand the true nature of the enemy confronting us both in and from the Middle East and within our own culture, we will make a terrible mistake.

Question: If the international community could put the clock back would it not now do everything in its power to stop the Rwandan genocide; if it had a choice now would it stand aside as Pol Pot systematically murders millions of his own people in the name of an ideology; does the world not now recognize that the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler was one of the greatest blunders recorded in history?

The Charlie Hebdo murders have been characterized as a vicious attack on one of the most fundamental values of Western civilization – freedom of speech and expression. They were that, but this is only part of the story. That massacre is just another flash-point it a greater war. Indeed it is a flash-point in which can be seen the basic elements of the lethal clash which Huntington foresaw. Huntington may be faulted for identifying too many potential clashing elements in his global analysis – but he was correct in identifying the essential element in the fault lines which were going to disturb the peace of the world. That element was no longer going to be the dynastic interests of the distant past, nor the national interests of the recent past, nor, in any major way, the material resources necessary for our way of life in our own time. These might be elements in the mix of the major conflicts of our times but they are not the root cause – because reason and negotiation are now accepted by the power-brokers as a better means of resolving our conflicting interests in these matters. The current Ukrainian impasse is an ethnic conflict with nationalist undertones. But is is unlikely to get catastrophically out of hand as it might have done in the days when the dynamics of  the European Balance of Power was so crucial to states. It will eventually be resolved by negotiation and agreement. It is not a clash of two civilizations, nor will it become one. Vladimir Putin’s posturing does not threaten the common good of the world we would like to see our generation’s children inherit. The jihadis of the Middle East do – and the nihilistic libertarianism represented by the likes of Charlie Hebdo do.

There is a three-way clash of civilizations threatening the peace of the world today. Two kinds of war are being waged – a hot war and a cold war. The hot war has multiple fronts. It is the war of the jihadis. Rather than Islamic, one protagonist in this war is Wahhabist or Salafist. This jihad    is waged against two enemies. Its primary enemy is the internal Islamic one – Muslims of any and every denomination who are not of its own pure brand. This is a war within Islam and its outcome is as crucial to non Muslims as it is to the happiness of ordinary Muslims around the world. The jihadist’s secondary target is a dual enemy – Christian civilization and the culture of the secularist West, two cultures under under one umbrella which are themselves engaged in the cold war now in progress within what we call Western civilization.

This cold war is between militant secularists and those whose conscience is guided by principles rooted in a reading of the human condition founded on both reason and faith. It is not a war between secular atheists and the rest because the majority in the secularist camp still profess an allegiance to some personal interpretation of Christianity – as one of its leading generals, Barack Obama, does. This is the war spoken of by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago when he predicted that he would die in his bed, that his successor would die in prison, but that his successor’s successor would be a martyr.

Side by side in the West there now exist Christian and the post-Christian civilization with the same mother, adhered to by one, rejected, more or less, by the other. They have not formally declared war on each other – but, don’t doubt it, they are at war. The battlegrounds are on two fronts: using constitutional and legal weapons on one front; using the media of social communication on the other. The ground being contested? The heritage of Christendom.

There have been victories and defeats on both sides. Who can deny that the witness to the world given by seven million Asians in the Philippines last month was not a resounding victory for Christian culture, or the Humanum Conference in Rome last year for its resounding affirmation of the values of the Judeo-Christian vision of humanity, its nature, dignity and destiny.There are others.

But how are we to read a question like this?

Have one million Brits signed up for an adultery website? American dating network Ashley Madison, which specializes in setting up extramarital affairs, says it has signed up that many British members. The “success” comes despite the fact that the website — which signs on with the tag “Life is short. Have an affair” — has been prevented from advertising on UK television.

Or how are we to read the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey? These and many more are signs of battles lost by those who have been fighting for the dignity of mankind and the triumph of that vision of our destiny which embraces more than the simply material, a perishable clump of cells. Charlie Hebdo is just one more manifestation of post-Christian culture. But the Christian way, the Christian weapon, of dealing with all this will never be violence or the suppression of freedom. It can only ever be, should only ever be, by the proclamation of the Truth, the eternal Truth. This, by virtue of its own power and its own promise, will ultimately triumph. How that triumph will be effected in the world is another matter, full of uncertainty. But are those who should be the protagonists in this triumph asleep or awake?

The tragedy of this cold war has many dimensions but one of its immediate and potentially lethal consequences is its weakening effect on those who should be confronting the violent and inhumane salafists, whose Christian victims President Obama did not even think were worthy of a sympathetic mention in his recent national prayer breakfast address.

Presidential prayers

The campaign of the salafists – whether under the agency of al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, or other manifestations of the jihad – cannot be separated from the spread of Muslim culture into the West. Islam by its very definition has the entire world in it sights. Salafism is not about territory. It is about souls. It is about converting, by fair means or foul, minds and hearts to Islam.

For all the centuries of its existence Islam spread by conquest and by migration. When it gained territory it then consolidated its captive populations and maintained them in the faith by the rigours of sharia law. Foreigners were an evil influence to be controlled or kept at bay – as the Wahhabists of modern Saudi Arabia seek to do today.

A sample of this civilization’s vision for our race can be seen in the manifesto on women’s life under the Islamic State published by female jihadis recently. It states that girls can marry from age nine and labels Western education as “strange”. The document criticizes the “strange studies” of Western education. Under pure Islam: “From ages seven to nine, there will be three lessons: fiqh (understanding) and religion, Quranic Arabic (written and read) and science(accounting and natural sciences).”

“From ten to twelve, there will be more religious studies, especially fiqh, focusing more on fiqh related to women and the rulings on marriage and divorce. This is in addition to the other two subjects. Skills like textiles and knitting, basic cooking will also be taught.”

“From thirteen to fifteen, there will be more of a focus on Sharia, as well as more manual skills (especially those related to raising children) and less of the science, the basics of which will already have been taught. In addition, they will be taught about Islamic history, the life of the Prophet and his followers.” The document, we are told, is designed to “clarify the role of Muslim women and the life which is desired for them”.

The guide is thought to be aimed at Arab women, rather than a Western audience. References to Saudi Arabia suggest that Saudi women are the main targets. But no one should doubt that the ultimate goal of all Islam in principle – and its Wahhabist manifestation in deadly practice – is the entire world.

A telling letter to the London Independent recently noted that the initiative by the Muslim Council of Britain to open the doors of some mosques to the public appears to be positive in the present climate. But, its author, Dr. Rumy Hasan of the University of Sussex,  pointed out, “it is mere symbolism, whereas what is needed are policy shifts of substance.” These are few and far between.

The British Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, in a recent and controversial letter to 1,000 mosque leaders,  asked them to consider how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. The likelihood is that for a majority of imams, Hasan says, “the two are, in fact, irreconcilable – this would certainly be the case for Saudi-funded mosques and those inspired by Deobandism, with its roots in South Asia. Indeed, they have been singularly hostile to being part of a British identity and integrating into mainstream society.

“We know that the meaning of the name of the Nigerian jihadi group Boko Haram is ‘Western education is sinful’. In a similar manner for many mosque leaders, Western lifestyle is sinful.

“What would be of substance and positive is a commitment to values that embrace freedom of expression and the adherence to universal laws, rather than demanding separate rights and exemptions to the law of the land that has hitherto been the case by Muslim leaders.”

But it is here that we come to the intractable conflict within Islam. Many ordinary Muslim people want to get on with their lives. The imams will not let them. There is no place for freedom in the militant strain of Islam now dictating the pace in much of the Islamic world because there is no place for reason. Not until there is victory for a moderate Islamic culture can there be any semblance of what Eric Pickles is hoping to see.

After centuries of deadlock on the bloody borders shared between Christian civilization and Islamic civilization eventually these frontiers became porous as Islam controlled territories slipped hopelessly behind in development. The eventual consequence of this was the migration of Muslims into the states of Western Europe. In the Islamic homeland of Arabia this was a disaster. For them it meant the sinful contamination of their people and with this arose the sense of mission to save them, to bring them back to the rigourous practice of their faith. This is the mission now in progress among the Muslims settled in the West. The dream of the Wahhabists is that what happened in Anatolia (now Turkey) in the eleventh century will be repeated again. As Bernard Lewis points out in his History of the Middle East, the Islamic transformation of that country was accomplished by migrating tribes rather than by any military action on the part of the Great Seljuks, the Muslim conquerors of that age. After that migrations the Islamic forces moved in to organize the province which had been handed to them on a plate by a process of ethnic migration. By the end of the twelfth century a Turkish Muslim monarchy was firmly in place and Anatolia became a Turkish land. Masses of Turkish immigrants then entered from further east and a Turkish Muslim civilization replaced Greek Christianity.

Hagia Sophia, once the heart of Greek Christianity

With old Europe now threatening to degenerate itself out of existence and with its growing Muslim population now a target for zealous Wahhabist imams, who can predict what will happen? The outcome of the West’s own internal cultural conflict – between its Christians and its secularists is crucial. The latter is the primary force behind its plunging demographics. This suicidal trend is the product of the rampant hedonistic individualism embedded in modern secularism. It can only be arrested within the context of a truly Christian culture of life. If not, then the fate of Europe can only be the fate of Anatolia.

It is hard not to conclude that the world is now facing into an era of  momentous change of the deepest kind. Not to recognize the nature of this conflict, or the character of the forces now at war with each other, is to bury our heads in the sand and to render ourselves impotent when we need to be effective protagonists in the struggle to shape this world in every way necessary to serve the common good of humanity for centuries to come.

Twenty years after – an unfolding conflict

“It was twenty years ago today” – well perhaps not today, but certainly this year – that Samuel P. Huntington published his seminal article in Foreign Affairs and set the world thinking again about new rumours of war. Just a year earlier Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History and the Last Man. That book was an expansion of his essay in the summer issue of The National Interest in 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin wall on the night of 9 November in the same year.

 What we may be witnessing” he wrote, is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

 That was a very controversial view and for most people it was read – or perhaps misread – as an oversimplification of the consequences of the events of the 1980s. But on a positive interpretation we did seem to be witnessing the end of three hundred years of conflict – sometimes dynastic, sometimes nationalistic, sometimes nakedly imperial and latterly a conflict between two ideologies, the one socialist and totalitarian, the other liberal and capitalist. There did seem to be a basis for optimism that there was now nothing really powerful enough to divide the human race and drive its factions into a war which if unleashed in our day and age might render the very planet itself incapable of sustaining human life.

That optimism was short-lived and the first wake-up call came from Samuel Huntington, the late Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, with the publication of his Foreign Affairs article, The Clash of Civilizations. With that our cosy reading of history came to an end and we were confronted with the prospect of new and even more intractable conflicts rooted in the deepest recesses of human consciousness, supra-rational and sometimes irrational, depending on your point of view. These conflicts would be much less susceptible to negotiation and compromise than conflicts rooted in political and economic differences.

In Huntington’s view the world had more or less now returned to the pre-Westphalian condition when wars of religion plagued Europe, or to the age of the Islamic conquests and the reconquista of Spain in the late Middle Ages. Once again the primary axis of global and regional conflicts was going to be cultural and religious.

Twenty years on, how does his thesis stand up? Without its oversimplifications, pretty well. At the time of his writing that essay there is no doubt but that Islamic militants were already on the move. But they were still not perceived as the global threat to peace that they have now become, necessitating a global protective security shield which in its own way matches anything that had to be put in place by western democracies to protect themselves from the threat of communism.

While the range of potential clashes he proposed for consideration looks a little too extensive, nevertheless the emergence of militant Islamic movements is enough to validate his central thesis. This clash has well and truly re-splattered red markings along the “bloody borders of Islam”, both the external ones and the internal ones where Shia and Sunni factions slaughter each other on a daily basis.  It is hard to find a location along those borders where there is not currently some jihadist group at work – from western to eastern Africa, or among the Mediterranean nations of north Africa, the Middle to the Far East and into those western societies where substantial Islamic immigration has taken place.

This is a war-in-progress and it is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. By and large it seems to bear out Huntington’s main thesis. The intractability of the conflict can be seen in the  bleakness of the prospects for peace negotiation in one of the many theatres in which this war is being played out in full battle dress – that of Afghanistan and the conflict with the intransigent Taliban.

But there is another war brewing which also has all the characteristics of the clashes predicted by Huntington. This is not one to which he paid much attention but it is brewing nonetheless. It will probably remain a largely cold war but it promises to be war just the same and will bring its quota of victims and suffering in its wake. It is the war which has already broken out within the old West to which we have already pinned the term, “culture wars”, making it seem with that soft word “culture”, a little more benign than it actually is.

It is in fact, largely, a new war of religion although few dare to call it so as yet. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a robust defender of what he holds to be inalienable human rights – like the right to life from conception to natural death – and the moral teaching of his Catholic Church, said last year that he expected to die in his bed. He thought, however, that his successor would probably die in prison while the man who would succeed his successor would die the death of a martyr.

Within western civilization there are now two separate civilizations developing and the fault line between them is deepening with each year that passes. On the one hand are the adherents of the central Christian beliefs and moral laws. On the other are the nominal Christians for whom these beliefs and laws are a relative thing, susceptible to change and for whom the will of the majority is the guiding principle of life. These latter are allied with many who hold no religious belief and for whom all truth is essentially relative. These have bought into the version of modernity which exalts individualism over the common good, where marriage is redefined to eliminate the principle of indissolubility and its basis in the complementarity of the sexes is ignored, where sex itself is as much about recreation as it is about procreation and where the notion of equality is no longer linked to liberty or fraternity.

Huntington maintained that cultural conflicts were inevitable when adherents of the major religions – Christianity and Islam – found themselves confronted by a society dominated by the irreligious. Conflict became inevitable when the agents of government in that society begin to control and organise it in ways which change the very meaning of life itself and a people’s understanding of what the pursuit of happiness is all about.

His focus on all this was more in the context of conflicts between already constituted geographical blocks and much less about struggles between segments of populations within existing societies. It is in these theatres that this new cold war has now begun to break out.

Within Western societies – which are still largely but at best nominally Christian – there are now two emerging blocks. There are those who are essentially nominal in their allegiance to the ideals of Christian belief and practice and there are those who are actually committed to the effort, albeit sometimes failing,  of living their lives according to the principles enshrined in those beliefs and practices. This latter fits Huntington’s categorization of the type of civilization which is likely to provoke hostility and conflict. Its adherents are missionary, universal and teleological, that is: they seek conversions (mission), they see themselves in possession of the whole (universal) truth and that truth is where the end (telos) and destiny of mankind is revealed.

When, as is the case now in Western societies, laws begin to be put in place by one group – in this case the now dominant nominally Christian group under the influence of an irreligious version of modernity – which contradict and deny fundamental principles by which the other groups seeks to live, trouble is in store. What we call the “culture war” is in fact a clash of these two civilizations on a series of issues ranging through principles of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, principles governing the beginning and end of life, the nature of family, marriage as a social institution and the nature and purpose of human sexuality. For one group these are matters governed by expediency and a lassiez faire approach; for the other group they are non-negotiable issues founded in an immutable human nature and – for a believer in a divine creator – revealed in the teachings of their religion.

The conscientious Christian cannot, for example, accept as a basis for political legislation the principle enunciated by many politicians in all these societies, that while they see a particular human act as morally wrong they must still legislate to facilitate others to carry out such acts if they so choose. The following segment of a correspondence between a constituent and an elected representative in one Western democratic jurisdiction – Ireland – on the issue of abortion legislation illustrates the impasse between these two civilizations.

In the context of the lassiez faire  political approach to human abuse “the citizen” put the case to “the citizen’s representative” as follows:

In the case of deliberate abortion, the abuse is on the mother, on the child in the womb, and indirectly on the wider community. You didn’t say it, but I often hear other people say “It will happen anyway, so let’s legislate to allow it under certain circumstances.” Again, I’ve never heard this said about any other kind of crime (tax fraud, bank robberies, dangerous driving, drug dealing).

 There is enormous pressure worldwide to allow abortion, backed by a mighty industry and driven by so many people’s desire to have complete control of their lives, complete freedom in choice of lifestyle, escape from all suffering, escape from all constraints. These desires, often fostered by commercial interests, are based on illusions and ultimately lead to despair.

 The proposed change in (Irish) law seems very restricted, but in fact it would be taking a giant leap. It would be allowing people to decide which life is worth (preserving), and which life can be deliberately terminated. This is clearly pulling up an ethical and moral anchor, with drastic consequences.

 One day societies will look back in horror at the idea that they once used to kill their young, in much the same way as we now look back in horror at slavery. We can have the chance to take the enlightened approach, of resisting the pressure to conform in something which is inherently repulsive, no matter how it is dressed up.

 To this “the citizen’s representative” replied:

For an elected representative, one’s own feelings on a matter must not generally supersede what might be considered to be appropriate for the population as a whole. Where they are in common with each other, it is of course easier, but where there is a conflict the elected member must decide where the general interest lies – to attempt as best he/she can find the objective view.

 While I might not like the idea or practice of abortion, is it for me to impose these beliefs on the population as a whole? What is the balance between the State’s responsibilities and the individual’s rights? This is the debate that plays out.

 Therein lies the very fragile fault line between two civilizations, the one pragmatic in the extreme, responsive not to any principle but to the will of a majority – regardless of what that majority should wish. For those on the other side, rooted in firm and time-tested ethical principles, this is the philosophy which allowed and determined such human atrocities as slavery and the holocausts of the twentieth century. For them this is much more than a “debate that plays out”, it is a matter of life death and the destiny of mankind. It is something that in the last analysis they will be prepared to give their lives for – in one way or another. It is not a comfortable thought but Huntington’s explorations of the issue of the clash of civilizations twenty years ago cannot be seen as anything other than prescient.